Texas-born and Seattle-raised, Rocky Votolato’s sound has never quite blended in with any particular locale. There’s something of Conor Oberst’s stark, Omaha melancholy, and a hint of Elliot Smith’s moody romanticism. But on True Devotion, his sixth solo full length release, the singer-songwriter sounds like he’s given up the journey and settled down. That might work for some, but instead of grounding his winsome folk-rock in something more solid, Votolato’s straightforward numbers just sound stalled and static. He’s gone from being anchorless to being weighed down.
A former member of the moderately successful indie-folk band, Waxwing, Votolato’s been quietly involved in the Northwest music scene for 15 years now, but he still sounds fundamentally the same. His last two full-lengths, 2006’s Makers and 2007’s The Brag and Cuss, didn’t radically alter the formula, but they were reliable, accessible folk-rock efforts. In fact, Votolato has made something of a career of being reliable – you can always rest assured that, with every new album, he’ll deliver one or two brilliant moments (like Makers’ “She Was Only In It For the Rain”), a handful of mild successes, and more filler than necessary. It’s hard to critique Votolato, though, perhaps because he treats his moody tales of broken hearts and tired feet with such continual sincerity.
Part of the problem is Votolato’s admittedly monochrome palate; it defies you to differentiate between numbers like “Lucky Clover Coin” and “What Waited for Me”. Choosing to rely instead on his own delicate vocals and solid guitar-playing, Votolato makes True Devotion often feel more like a chore than a gift. But when he varies the tempo, if only slightly, the results are fairly impressive. “Red River” for example, bears the most resemblance to a beefed-up Elliot Smith b-side, even if its lyricism owes more to the Boss (“I had a brother who was stationed up in northern hill country / Though he never really came home / We drove out east to Red River to see the high waters flow”).
At its inspired moments, like the anthemic “Eyes Like Static”, True Devotion often reaches something memorable. Or there’s the sweet “Instrument”, which opens with Dylanesque harmonica-fiddling, and closes with the chant of “I just want to be free.” Free from what, exactly? With no constraints other than his own somewhat limited scope, Votolato might be trying for an American-inspired sense of expansion, but like the Nebraska plains, it’s simply flat as far as the eye can see. It’s difficult to point out the high and low points of the album (excepting the tedious “Don’t Be Angry”), because there are no truly terrible songs on True Devotion. But there are no great songs either, and that’s Votolato’s true disappointment as an artist. Rather than questioning his reliance on formula, Votolato seems comfortably enmeshed in his own private Idaho, churning out delicate folk numbers as though it was his job – which, with two kids and a wife behind him, it is. There’s an aura of earnestness to True Devotion that goes so deep it almost guarantees its commercial failure.
Failure is perhaps too harsh a word. There’s nothing to really dislike about True Devotion, but then again, there’s nothing to love either. It’s adequate, average, ultimately a bit dull, but Votolato’s persona is so fundamentally likeable that True Devotion’s banality is almost comforting. The overwhelming melancholy becomes suffocating by the album’s end, but it’s hard to fault Votolato for his pure, unabashed sincerity. You could ask for more, but you wouldn’t have the heart to.
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